JFK Library Opens Digital Collections

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy

To coin­cide with the 50th anniver­sary of the inau­gu­ra­tion of John F. Kennedy, the JFK Pres­i­den­tial Library today announced the open­ing of “the nation’s largest online dig­i­tized pres­i­den­tial archive.”

The details were pre­sented in the Archivist’s Recep­tion Room in the National Archives build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. by David S. Fer­riero, Archivist of the United States (bio | blog), and Car­o­line Kennedy, Pres­i­dent of the John F. Kennedy Library Foun­da­tion. (The JFK Library is one of thir­teen pres­i­den­tial libraries admin­is­tered by NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration.)

A lit­tle more than four years ago, on June 8, 2006, Sen­a­tor Edward M. Kennedy announced the dig­i­ti­za­tion project. Accord­ing to the press release:

At launch, the archive fea­tures approx­i­mately 200,000 pages; 300 reels of audio tape, con­tain­ing more than 1,245 indi­vid­ual record­ings of tele­phone calls, speeches and meet­ings; 300 museum arti­facts; 72 reels of film; and 1,500 pho­tos. The sheer vol­ume of dig­i­tized mate­ri­als is unprece­dented for pres­i­den­tial libraries whose col­lec­tions were not born digitally.”

Just as in any dig­i­ti­za­tion project, the ini­tial release includes only a frac­tion of what is in the library itself. As the press release notes, the JFK Library’s holdings:

cur­rently include more than 8.4 mil­lion pages of the per­sonal, con­gres­sional and pres­i­den­tial papers of John Fitzger­ald Kennedy, and more than 40 mil­lion pages of over 300 other indi­vid­u­als who were asso­ci­ated with the Kennedy Admin­is­tra­tion or mid-20th Cen­tury Amer­i­can his­tory. In addi­tion, the archives hold more than 400,000 still pho­tographs; 9,000 hours of audio record­ings; 7.5 mil­lion feet of motion pic­ture film; and 1,200 hours of video record­ings. Dig­i­ti­za­tion efforts are ongo­ing and addi­tional mate­r­ial will con­tinue to be added to the archive as it is scanned and described.”

While many geneal­o­gists may jump to the con­clu­sion that their fam­ily is not in these records, so they do not mat­ter to them, I think the point is that this will be a pow­er­ful resource for schol­ars of all types, espe­cially his­to­ri­ans and fam­ily his­to­ri­ans who seek to put the fam­i­lies they research into an his­tor­i­cal con­text. The suc­cess of this project will add to the even larger Google Books and Euro­peana projects, and serve as a guide and as per­sua­sion for many other kinds of libraries, archives, and repos­i­to­ries to dig­i­tize their materials.

The pop­u­lar media (and Ancestry.com and its com­peti­tors) imply that more genealog­i­cal records have been dig­i­tized than in fact have been. Nev­er­the­less, I say: The more dig­i­ti­za­tion, the bet­ter. The ben­e­fits of dig­i­ti­za­tion can be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows. Digitization:

  1. Cre­ates a backup copy of the orig­i­nal document.
  2. Allows archivists to limit han­dling of rare and frag­ile doc­u­ments, since a dig­i­tal copy can be made avail­able instead for most purposes.
  3. Makes mate­ri­als more widely avail­able, with less con­cern for time and space, 24 hours a day, over the Internet.

To clar­ify the state of things with dig­i­tal genealog­i­cal records: Yes, many records have been dig­i­tized; no, the vast major­ity of records have not been dig­i­tized. So, I wel­come the launch of the JFK Library dig­i­tal archives, and of any dig­i­tized records, as another brick in an edi­fice that will never be fully constructed.

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